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October 4-10, 2006

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Bike winetasting

Biketasting: A novel way to induce autumn's haze.

Rube's Ride

In which our writer spits, cycles and stumbles his way through the Napa Valley

By Alastair Bland

The avid cyclist who has his own beloved bike at home will likely be dissatisfied with any bike-shop rental. The fit will probably never be right and the seat uncomfortable. As he sets off down the road feeling awkward and out of form, he might suddenly realize that he is just another tourist in the wine country, here for a day on a bike that doesn't fit and an adventure that is not exactly novel.

But throw in some winetasting and all is well. That's what the Calistoga Bike Shop has done. Since April it has offered a deal called the Calistoga Cool Wine Tour. Designed in cahoots with eight local wineries, the package includes a bike for the day, a helmet, a rear bike bag suitable for carrying wine, a water bottle, a souvenir tasting glass, a map of the northern Napa Valley and about all the winetasting a cyclist can reasonably handle in an afternoon. At $59 plus tax per person, you're on your own all day, free and clear with your bicycle and a red wristband that identifies you as one of the honored cyclists of the Calistoga Bike Shop.

"We've always rented bikes," says shop owner Mike Costanzo, "and we found that we spent a lot of time explaining to our customers where all the cool wineries are. So we thought, 'Why don't we just package this thing?'"

I tried out Calistoga Bike Shop's Cool Wine Tour last month with a friend from San Francisco. We rented blue Bianchi Advantages--lean, strong, sexy machines. They were quite comfortable, but our handlebar arrangements had us sitting upright like dainty ladies riding ponies, and I just couldn't help feeling that we were a pair of clueless tourists setting off on a winetasting outing. Fair enough.

Before we departed, one of the bike-shop staff briefed us on the basics of winetasting so that we wouldn't go and make complete asses of ourselves in the tasting rooms, where very respectable people hang out. She gave us each a tasting chart, composed of 12 columns with such headings as "Body," "Acidity," "Bouquet," "Clarity," "Finish" and so forth. Empty boxes below would allow us to comment on each wine we tasted in the course of the day.

We pedaled south on the quiet route highlighted on our maps. The bike shop has done its best to direct customers onto quiet lanes and bike paths lined with walnut trees and old farmhouses, but it has also spiced up the route nicely with a few hot runs along several of the local highways. As we made a left turn off the Silverado Trail into the driveway of winery number one, Silver Rose Cellars (351 Rosedale Road, Calistoga; 707.942.9581), an aggressive convertible almost creamed us both. But it was our fault; she was rich, and we should not have been in her way.

Inside the tasting room, our red wristbands worked like charms. The man behind the counter took a glance and made no mention of the $5 tasting fee. He whipped out two glasses and promptly got us started. He told us to "chew the wine like chocolate" and to notice the strawberry and peach flavors in each of the three samples he poured. I find it strange that wines are never said to taste even faintly like grapes, because they make wine from grapes, I hear.

Next, we rolled just across the highway to August Briggs Wines (333 Silverado Trail, Calistoga; 707.942.4912). It was already crowded with serious wine tasters. As the tasting here is free for all, no one heeded our red wristbands. We had a few drinks, then left and rode northward a mile or so to Zahtila Vineyards (2250 Hwy. 29, Calistoga; 707.942.9251). A golden Lab named Zoe greeted us out front, and in the friendly tasting room we saw her image displayed in an opened coffee table book entitled Winery Dogs of California. Also look for Zoe in the 2007 "Winery Dogs" calendar. She is posing for April.

Vincent Arroyo Winery (2361 Greenwood Ave., Calistoga; 707.942.6995) was next. By now I felt a little drunk, so I began following the bike shop's suggestion to "spit 'n' cycle." I had never before used a spit bucket, and to my surprise I found that spitting out fine wine grants one the heightened feeling that he is a real wine taster, one who can tell the excellent from the merely fine, and who appreciates the subtle nuances of the good life.

Summers Estate Wines (1171 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707.942.5508) produces several oddball wines--Charbono, Sangiovese, Dolcetto and Muscat--among the usual Napa Valley staples. The man at the bar couldn't say enough about the Charbono, a rare varietal planted in less than a hundred acres in California. "This goes really, really well with pasta!" he exclaimed. To me, it tasted like most ordinary table reds, and I just couldn't grasp the significance of this attribute. Yet on he carried about the Charbono and pasta. I spat the wine into the bucket, dabbed my lips with a silk kerchief, and we left.

Just across the street is Calistoga Cellars (1170 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707.942.7422), where our server matched our Zinfandel with some hot cuts of absolutely delicious award-winning pork from the grill outside. Rant all you want about Charbono and spaghetti, I'll take pork and Zin any day.

The last winery en route was Bennett Lane Winery (3340 Hwy. 128, Calistoga; 877.MAX.NAPA). A very bold sign on the tasting-room counter informed us that the folks here charge $10 for a flight of just four wines. Not for us, for we wore red wristbands! I thought what a great value this bike ride is, eight wineries and about 40 samples considered.

Actually, we skipped one winery. That was Dutch Henry Winery (4310 Silverado Trail, Calistoga; 707.942.5771), poor fellow, for it resides three miles south of town, and we were too tired to make the trip. It was 4 o'clock and the sun, the riding and the wine had burned us out. It had eroded our intellects as well, and we considered ordering a case of something. The bike-shop staff will gladly come out and pick up whatever wines you decide you want to purchase, but a case runs $200 to $700, and we barely had enough for the bridge toll.

Too bad, because I have a friend who just loves spaghetti.

Calistoga Bike Shop, 1318 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. 866.942.BIKE or Also, Bacchus Bicycle Tours provide a bike, picnic, snacks, water, van support and two guides for one-day excursions through Healdsburg's Dry Creek Valley for $130.

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